Home . Radioshow . News Columns . Resources . Contact

The Taos News


can be heard discussing Positive Psychology here.


Talking with Children about Death

January 2014

Awareness of death creates anxiety in all human beings. Therefore, it is understandable you would want to protect your child from an awareness of death and the experiences surrounding it. The reality is, you cannot. As children grow, they gain a general grasp of the world which naturally and inevitably includes death. When they observe disappearances, decay, non-responsiveness and other phenomena related to death, they become curious and concerned.

Many parents believe their children think of death only infrequently and hold a view that children are better off not thinking of death. They try to protect them from death-relevant situations. However research studies show that even when no reference to death is made, in the course of conversation children refer to deaths, funerals, killings, or ghosts. They express negative affect when talking about death starting as early as two years of age and have feelings about it long before they understand all of its implications.

Imagine the feelings of the helpless child who realizes his parents will die. Even anticipating the loss fills him with terror and evokes deep sadness and pain. Later he will apply the concept of death to himself, discovering there is no recourse. The reality completely shatters his world of permanence and safety. The stable life he once knew is forever altered. Even though he will develop powerful defenses to block this terrifying reality from consciousness, the suppressed fear of death will continue to exert an influence on him throughout his life.

The defenses a child employs in denying the reality of death are important to understand and recognize because you can help him cope with his anxiety about death rather than assist in his denial of it. For example, your child might give death a form when he talks about the bogeyman or grim reaper, or a skeleton, ghost or shadow in the night. Nightmares which include being threatened or killed by monsters or ghosts also reveal a child’s emotional reactions to his knowledge of death. Many children express ideas that they are invulnerable, that children do not die, or that they have a uniquely personal and ultimate rescuer.

Children also manifest a range of reactions and behaviors caused by this realization. Many cut off their feelings, becoming inward and distant from parents, siblings and friends. Some express anger and hostility. Their questions about death also indicate an increase in concern about it.

Since most parents want to spare their child from anxiety, they often avoid the subject of death in conversations or offer counsel such as “You don’t have to think about that at your age.” Though it may be difficult, it is especially important during these times to remember your children are human beings, worthy of respect and openness, not evasion and pretense. Take your child’s inquiries about death seriously and do not attempt to change the subject or brush them aside with platitudes. Let her fully express her ideas and feelings on the subject. Rather than punishing her or ignoring defensive behaviors you could ask, “Is anything bothering you? You don’t seem to be feeling very good.” Listen respectfully to any feelings she is willing to express without offering false protection. Honestly share your own feelings on the subject while you are answering her inquiries.

When you are willing to endure the sadness and pain of acknowledging your child’s realization of their mortality as well as your own, the reward will be a true sense of empathy with him. You will be providing him with the greatest security humanly possible when you face the issue of death yourself, tell your child the truth, and allow each of you to express your feelings about this deeply disturbing subject. Through this shared experience you will both learn that even emotions as intensely painful as those about death are better felt and not avoided.

More information on achieving life-affirming death awareness can be found in the book Beyond Death Anxiety by Robert W. Firestone, Ph.D.



Home . Radioshow . News Columns . Resources . Contact